Brow Beat

The Singer, Not the Song

Teen Spirit and Her Smell elevate the power of pop performance at the expense of scrutinizing it.

Diptych of stills from Her Smell and Teen Spirit. In the still from Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss is a rocker singing passionately into the mic with her hands in handcuffs. In the still from Teen Spirit, Elle Fanning stands and looks forward to perform in a singing competition.
Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell and Elle Fanning in Teen Spirit.
Bow and Arrow Entertainment; Bleecker Street/Lionsgate Films

The new movie Teen Spirit is a scrappy indie whose title brings to mind one of the biggest punk rock records of all time. But its actual spirit tends toward poptimism, the 2000s movement in music criticism initially pitched as a corrective to decades of often gendered, sometimes racist rockism. It follows Violet (Elle Fanning), a teenager from a working-class Polish family living modestly (and semi-miserably) on the Isle of Wight, on her journey through the pop music machine, which sounds more ominous than it is. Violet wrangles her way into an audition for Teen Spirit, a fictional U.K. singing competition program, struggles for acceptance from her family, argues with her alcoholic manager, and debates whether to sign a record contract that may be too good to be true.

Her Smell, which shared its opening day with Teen Spirit, evokes the ’90s more directly, in both its subject matter and its unvarnished approach. (Both movies will be expanding to more cities this weekend.) Rampaging alt-rock frontwoman Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) isn’t explicitly modeled on Courtney Love, but it’s hard not to think of her as Becky stumbles through late gigs and blown studio time, leaving her career and relationships in a shambles. The movie takes place over five long scenes, following Becky’s downward spiral and, eventually, her attempt to pull out of it.

Superficially, the two don’t have much in common. Teen Spirit is a lean 92 minutes, while Her Smell is a sprawling 135. Violet is an industry novice; Becky, even in her early scenes, is already in the process of annihilating the tattered remains of the goodwill her band has accumulated over a long career. Violet mostly sings poppy covers; Becky’s turbulent songs are supposed to be torn from her soul. But both movies look at women in the glare of the pop music spotlight, from the perspectives of male writer-directors.

In plenty of ways, Teen Spirit’s director, Max Minghella (also an actor, and the son of the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella) and Her Smell’s Alex Ross Perry (who has worked with Moss several times before) acquit themselves well. The films don’t leer at or condescend to their lead characters, who are treated with empathy—even Becky, who spends an abrasive hour-plus actively working against any such feelings. Teen Spirit is about a singing competition and Her Smell is downright punishing, but neither is a cynical undertaking.

Maybe some cynicism, or at least a healthy skepticism, would have been warranted, though. To some extent, both movies elide the details of what it’s like to be a woman in this particular entertainment-industrial space, being empathetic toward their leads without fully considering their environments. This feels especially pronounced in Teen Spirit, where much of the singing competition business breezes by in a few montages and performances (ironically, it’s more concise than the drawn-out drama often ginned up for these broadcasts). The other singers are mostly nice (Violet’s meanest competition comes early on, from another Isle of Wight girl). The handlers are mostly nice. Even Jules (Rebecca Hall), a vaguely menacing record industry mogul, isn’t that bad. The movie is so nonjudgmental that hardly anyone in it utters so much as an opinion about music, beyond bare technical assessments (whether Violet is showing off enough of her vocal range, for example) and the film’s tacit approval of best-case-scenario pop singers like Robyn or Carly Rae Jepsen.

But in its performance scenes, Teen Spirit becomes more expressive about the joys of pop. When Violet auditions, Minghella doesn’t limit his frame to the bare stage. As she sings Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” he cuts to her rehearsing, to her dancing in her bedroom, to her singing to herself, turning the kaleidoscope of images into her own private music video. The judges can’t see the juxtaposition, but it communicates Violet’s passion for singing in an instinctual way that goes beyond dialogue. For a few minutes, it makes sense that hardly anyone in the movie really talks about music; this is music to hit you in the heart, not to inspire intellectual debate.

Her Smell isn’t so poptimistic—Becky’s ’90s alt-rock is written by Alicia Bognanno, frontwoman for the current rock band Bully—but Perry’s movie also finds transcendence in pop performance. Its rawest emotional moment comes in the back half of the film, when the narrative (such as it is) stops cold for a recovering Becky to play the Bryan Adams ballad “Heaven” on her piano for the young daughter she barely knows. Perry stages the song in a single shot that maximizes the moment’s tenderness and desperation. That performance resonates through the rest of the film.

The performances in Teen Spirit don’t do quite as much emotional work, and the movie’s drama never comes alive the way its singing does. When she’s not on stage, Violet reverts to seeming as uncomplicated as her explanation of what motivates her: “I like to sing.” But even if Her Smell has more gut-punch power, both movies enliven familiar stories (the talented-underdog fairy tale; the Behind the Music hubris) with the power of communicating through catchy songs.

Performance scenes have often functioned as moments of truth in music business narratives, but in these two movies the attention to a female star’s self-expression onstage is crucial to what works about them, just as it was in last fall’s A Star Is Born and Vox Lux. A Star Is Born covers a lot of well-trod territory, but it’s hard to argue with the intensity of the scene where Lady Gaga’s Ally works up the courage to run onstage and sing “Shallow” with Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine. Vox Lux has much less affection for the music industry, yet its provocations feel ambivalent rather than fully sour because it ends with Natalie Portman’s character commanding the stage, singing a bunch of Sia-penned songs. (No movie that truly hates pop music hires Sia, although no movie that unambivalently loves pop would hire the late Scott Walker, a disaffected pop star turned beloved experimental musician, to write its score).

The way these movies use songs as moments of truth cuts through tired questions of pop authenticity, although the equation of performance with truthfulness might also be attributed to the fact that three of them have actors behind the camera (Her Smell is the lone exception). It’s refreshing that Teen Spirit doesn’t view its heroine exclusively in terms of gatekeeping credibility, and that Her Smell doesn’t romanticize the “realness” of Becky’s self-destruction. (A Star Is Born can’t help but go out of its way to illustrate Ally’s scrappy regular-gal status and Jackson’s authentic pain, but even Cooper’s very serious undertaking has some room for debate about how valuable these qualities are.) The women of these pop music narratives aren’t condemned or redeemed by the particulars of their art.

But there are limitations to this approach, too. Teen Spirit in particular is so supportive of its heroine that it feels hesitant to even consider that her desire for a singing career might be more fraught than a teenage dream. (This might have been less of a problem if Minghella had just made a flat-out musical, extending the energy of the performance scenes to the rest of the story.) Her Smell seems more interested in why Becky might self-destruct than why she writes her own songs to begin with, and it farms out her emotional apex to a familiar cover song.

How much of the connection formed in those performances relies on familiarity, a savvy analysis of the audience’s needs? For all of the affected young-auteur choices Vox Lux makes, it stands out among recent pop music movies for its genuine interest in the tension between performance as self-expression and performance as calculation. It would be a shame if future pop music films (hopefully some written and directed by women) sacrificed these complexities and tensions at the altar of poptimism.